|I read fiction with a writer’s eye: I rarely get caught up in the story because I’m too busy studying what works and what doesn’t work. Once I’ve figured that out, unless it’s a really wonderful story (and few of them are) I stop reading. My library is full of novels whose endings I don’t know.
So it’s unusual when I can say, as I can today, that the last two novels I read I finished, and enjoyed immensely.
Dogs of Babel by Carolyn Parkhurst was loaned to me by a neighbour who told me she has never read my blog, and with whom I’ve never had a really serious conversation. I probably should some time. She gave it to me because it’s a novel that involves a dog, and she knows I write and love dogs. What’s interesting is that it also broaches (though in a somewhat macabre way) inter-species communication, the tarot deck (specifically The Hanged Man), and the causes of depression, all of which I have written about on these pages. It’s the author’s first novel, and, more remarkably, is written from the perspective of its male narrator. Its 240 spare pages contain a whopping 42 chapters, which works fine for me, and it hasn’t an ounce of fat on it. It proceeds at a gallop. It’s both a mystery and a retrospective romance. The happily married protagonist’s spouse has mysteriously died from an improbable fall from a backyard tree, witnessed only by the family dog. The mystery is unravelled as the story of their romance is rolled out. Various motifs wind their way through the story: masks, tarot cards, talking dog jokes, kitsch, name anagrams, body wrtiting, surrealistic dreams, Scottish myths. The characters are thin and not terribly endearing (the dog excepted), but the story keeps you going, the writing is tight, and the dialogue is real. Great, straight-ahead writing. Here’s a teaser, the description of the protagonist’s imaginings of what their dog would tell him if she could talk:
Maybe she wants to tell me about a single moment of summer grass, looking for something to chase, the feeling of damp earth on bare paws. That may be what she has to tell me. The joy of muscle and bone working together to run as she chases a cat. The wind blowing her ears as she sticks her head out a car window. The loneliness of the door closing, leaving her alone in the house. The patient waiting beneath the table, the smell of dinner not meant for her…Seeing things happen and not knowing why. The smells of other dogs.
Elroy Nights is the latest novel by Frederick Barthelme, who, as my regular readers know well, is my favourite fiction writer. What can I say? I’m addicted to this guy’s writing. I read his books in one sitting, usually finishing bleary-eyed as the sun is rising. He has it all: Lovable, quirky characters, imagery that is so real and extraordinary that it brings tears to your eyes, a quiet anger that imbues and energizes every brilliantly-chosen word, a pulse on the despair and lonely desperation of aging North Americans, a sparkling but ironic sense of humour and playfulness, a delightful ability to find imaginative and unexpected adjectives that are somehow perfect, and dialogue that is inventive, crisp and clever but still totally credible. He makes every person in his stories, American archetypes whose lives are grindingly ordinary, somehow extraordinary, magical, full of promise, and in so doing he connects us, eccentrics every one, to each other and makes us whole, a people, at least for a moment less lonely. He’s America’s master storyteller, the most under-rated and understated writer of our time. Here are a couple of passages already blacklined and dog-eared in my copy for further study.
When Winter [the narrator’s step-daughter] hit eighteen she moved out, got an apartment with one of her dodgier friends, and left us at the house with the dog, Wavy, who followed Clare [the narrator’s wife] everywhere she went. Clare and I didn’t adjust too well to being alone with each other. In a matter of months, Clare was sleeping in one of the upstairs bedrooms. And soon after that, every night when she went to bed I felt a little bit relieved to have the downstairs to myself.
[After the narrator has moved out] As I drove across the bridge, I thought how we’d started as young people insisting on living the way we wanted, and how we’d gradually retreated from that, from doing what we wanted. Things change. What you want becomes something you can’t imagine having wanted, and instead you have this, suddenly and startlingly not at all what you sought. One day you find yourself walking around in Ralph Lauren shorts and Cole Haan loafers and no socks. You think, How did this happen? It isn’t a terrible spot, and you don’t feel bad about being there, being the person you are in the place you are, with the wife or husband you have, the step-daughter, the friends and acquaintences, the house and tools and toys, the job, but there is no turning back. You have a Daytimer full of things to do. You have a Palm PDA and names and addresses and contacts, and there is no way back. Even if there were a way back, you couldn’t get there from here, and you probably wouldn’t go if you could. The effort required isn’t the kind of effort you can make anymore.
That will get you started. What happens to Elroy is both random and inevitable, and the lessons from the story are as light as the breath of a whisper in your ear and as profound as the meaning of love.
[By the way, if you’re looking at my earlier articles on Barthelme, please note that I haven’t updated the link to his advice on writing, The 39 Steps, which can now be found here. ]